A collection of personal reflections. Copyright © 2005-2011 K. Gurries

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pope Benedict On Solidarity and Subsidiarity

Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to contribute to the development of the Church’s social doctrine by examining the interrelationships between human dignity, common good, solidarity and subsidiarity.  Pope Benedict reflected on this theme during his May 2008 Address to the Participants in the 14th Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences

The Holy Father posed the question to the Pontifical Academy in the following terms: "How can solidarity and subsidiarity work together in the pursuit of the common good in a way that not only respects human dignity, but allows it to flourish?  This is the heart of the matter which concerns you."  The Holy Father begins with a definition of terms:
Human dignity is the intrinsic value of a person created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ.  The totality of social conditions allowing persons to achieve their communal and individual fulfilment is known as the common goodSolidarity refers to the virtue enabling the human family to share fully the treasure of material and spiritual goods, and subsidiarity is the coordination of society’s activities in a way that supports the internal life of the local communities.
Pope Benedict then gives a subtle warning that “definitions are only the beginning.  What is more, these definitions are adequately grasped only when linked organically1 to one another and seen as mutually supportive of one another."  In other words, these concepts must not be viewed in isolation to one another but are mutually supportive and interdependent.  The Holy Father then describes how these related concepts can be visualized in graphical form:
We can initially sketch the interconnections between these four principles by placing the dignity of the person2at the intersection of two axes: one horizontal, representing "solidarity" and "subsidiarity", and one vertical, representing the "common good".  This creates a field upon which we can plot the various points of Catholic social teaching that give shape to the common good.


Then comes another subtle warning regarding the limitations of graphic analogies that attempt to represent a "reality that is much more complex."

Indeed, the unfathomable depths of the human person and mankind’s marvellous capacity for spiritual communion – realities which are fully disclosed only through divine revelation – far exceed the capacity of schematic representation.  The solidarity that binds the human family, and the subsidiary levels reinforcing it from within, must however always be placed within the horizon of the mysterious life of the Triune God (cf. Jn 5:26; 6:57), in whom we perceive an ineffable love shared by equal, though nonetheless distinct, persons (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 42).

Horizontal and Vertical

The horizontal dimension of solidarity and subsidiarity is related to the temporal plane and is primarily concerned with the right ordering of society in view of “civil peace” and “concord among citizens”.  On one hand the subsidiarity principle seeks to ensure a sufficient autonomy for individuals and lower social units.  To deny this autonomy and private initiative is to stifle authentic human development and slide into unjust modes of authoritarianism.  Yet this proper autonomy is not an absolute autonomy since there are reciprocal duties toward others and the common good of all.  It is the fraternal bonds of solidarity that binds together all men as in a “human family” – ensuring that the needs of the “other” and the entire community are kept clearly in view.  In this sense, the horizontal view of solidarity and subsidiarity strives for that proper balance between the needs of the human person as well as the needs of the community – while providing an effective safeguard against the opposite extremes of individualism or collectivism.  In this sense, Pope Benedict affirms that the "principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need." (CV, 58) 


While the social scientist may be primarily concerned with the horizontal dimension, the theologian brings to light the necessary importance of the vertical dimension: “When we examine the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity in the light of the Gospel, we realize that they are not simply ‘horizontal’: they both have an essentially vertical dimension… I encourage you to survey both the ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ dimensions of solidarity and subsidiarity.”  The vertical dimension helps us to see the connection between the temporal and the spiritual realms – between the natural and the supernatural: 

In this regard, the tranquillitas ordinis of which Saint Augustine speaks refers to "all things": that is to say both "civil peace", which is a "concord among citizens", and the "peace of the heavenly city", which is the "perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God" (De Civitate Dei, XIX, 13)…The eyes of faith permit us to see that the heavenly and earthly cities interpenetrate and are intrinsically ordered to one another, inasmuch as they both belong to God the Father, who is "above all and through all and in all" (Eph 4:6).  At the same time, faith places into sharper focus the due autonomy of earthly affairs, insofar as they are "endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order"  (Gaudium et Spes, 36).

Nature and Grace

The horizontal and vertical dimensions are mutually supportive and analogous to how grace builds on nature.  In this sense, the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity “have the potential to place men and women on the path to discovering their definitive, supernatural destiny.  The natural human inclination to live in community is confirmed and transformed by the ‘oneness of Spirit’ which God has bestowed upon his adopted sons and daughters (cf. Eph 4:3; 1 Pet 3:8).”

Therefore, the natural virtue of solidarity – based on friendship and the recognition of the essential equality and intrinsic worth of the other – is oriented towards the perfection of fraternal and supernatural charity.

In this sense, true solidarity – though it begins with an acknowledgment of the equal worth of the other – comes to fulfillment only when I willingly place my life at the service of the other (cf. Eph 6:21). Herein lies the "vertical" dimension of solidarity: I am moved to make myself less than the other so as to minister to his or her needs (cf. Jn 13:14-15), just as Jesus "humbled himself" so as to give men and women a share in his divine life with the Father and the Spirit (cf. Phil 2:8; Mat 23:12). 

Subsidiarity also has a vertical dimension insofar as the natural inclination towards family life and private associations – that “demands of higher authorities respect for these relationships” – points “toward the Creator of the social order (cf. Rom 12:16, 18).”  Additionally, the natural inclinations and respect for individual responsibility and private initiative “leave space for love (cf. Rom 13:8; Deus Caritas Est, 28), which always remains ‘the most excellent way’ (cf. 1 Cor 12:31).”


We can summarize by highlighting the essential interrelationship between solidarity and subsidiarity in promoting and supporting integral human development.  This perspective helps us to keep in view both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of solidarity and subsidiarity – as these are related analogous to how grace builds on nature.  In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict goes further by recalling the reality of "original sin" and man’s wounded nature that leaves him inclined to evil.  In this sense, man is not able to build and sustain solidarity and a fraternal community by his own efforts:

Because it is a gift received by everyone, charity in truth is a force that builds community, it brings all people together without imposing barriers or limits.  The human community that we build by ourselves can never, purely by its own strength, be a fully fraternal community, nor can it overcome every division and become a truly universal community.  The unity of the human race, a fraternal communion transcending every barrier, is called into being by the word of God-who-is-Love.  In addressing this key question, we must make it clear, on the one hand, that the logic of gift does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without; on the other hand, economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity. (Cf. CV, 34)    



1 In this sense, the personalist principle, solidarity and subsidiarity together form an integral part of a just social order.

2 This centrality and primacy of the human person in politics and economics is commonly referred to as the personalist principle (personalism) that is founded on integral or Christian humanism.  In this sense, the concept of "integral human development" is dependent upon the organically linked principles of personalism, solidarity and subsidiarity.     


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